I tend to learn and understand a subject to a much deeper extent if I am able to play around/experiment/mess with something that demonstrates the principles.

I'm starting a Neuroscience PhD program in the fall and would like to know how I could maximize the opportunities to experiment with various equipment at the university. I'm interested in working with things like fMRI, MEG, EEG, electron-microscopes, and supercomputers.

How easy is it to informally play with these types of equipment when they might be sitting idle?

Note: I'm looking to do this safely without any intent to damage the equipment. Primarily, I'm looking to replicate the findings of classic experiments and discover aspects that didn't make it into the published papers.

  • Well not with MRI, EEG or electron microscopes but in my field of curriculum development for engineering, I get to play with NdYag Laser for flow visualization, optical techniques for experimental stress analysis of structures, wind tunnel to demonstrate flow over bodies. Like I said, not medical equipment but expensive enough. However, since I am in "curriculum development", I am expected to play with them or I get fired! ;)
    – dearN
    Apr 1, 2014 at 11:55
  • To answer the title question: Never. Apr 1, 2014 at 15:00

2 Answers 2


It depends to a large degree on who owns them.

If it's your lab group, and your supervisor's happy enough, you can probably use them whenever you like.

If they're owned by the department/division/etc then there's likely to be a formal booking system. Once you've booked a slot, though, I'd imagine you can do whatever work you like on them.

Provisos in this are cost and safety.

Cost, because some of the stuff you're talking about is pretty pricey. An fMRI session can be charged at over $400 dollars per hour.

Safety applies to you and the equipment. You may well intend to be safe and not damage the equipment, but that can be easier said than done. As such, you're never going to be allowed to use certain items without having gone through the necessary training - so you'll have to convince your supervisor that doing such training is a good use of your time/funding.

So in your lab, play around time will I suspect be limited, save on equipment you use daily. But if you must get your hands on a piece of kit, fear not, for there are workshops and courses you can attend! These often occur in conjunction with a conference/meeting/etc of some kind, where a sponsoring vendor will kindly 'donate' a piece of equipment (in the hope you'll buy the same brand later down the road) and as a group you get the opportunity to spend a while using it under the company representative's watchful eye. Keep an eye out for these, and try to arrange to publish a paper in the conference, or give a talk in the meeting, and I'm sure you'll be given the funding to go.


Pat's right about the more expensive and controlled equipment like fMRI and MEG machines, but I wanted to add more about the other equipment. I previously worked in an engineering lab that took on a lot of cognition research, and we had close ties with a neuroscientist and professor on campus, as well as a physics lab.

  • You didn't mention it explicitly, but do you know if you'll be working with a lab yet? Some grad students are funded as TAs instead of RAs (or not at all!), which doesn't put you in front of the equipment until it's research time (if even then, depending on your thesis.) Make sure your advisor knows about your desire to get hands-on; it's a good trait, and they'll know more about the opportunities.
  • EEG equipment can be expensive, but pretty simple. Same with GSR (Galvanic Skin Response.) Clinical EEG data often requires gel or saline to make contact with the scalp, and can have 16, 32, 64, or even 128 electrodes in a "cap." It's possible to have a setup that requires two people to properly configure, which limits availability. But other than that, it's only permission and careful handling keeping you from using it while idle, assuming there's a dedicated set of research EEG equipment.
  • An electron microscope station would likely have a small library of prepared samples to peruse. Preparation is not a trivial task for many things, so you aren't likely to get more than this without actively working with one for research.
  • Supercomputing abilities don't necessarily require a supercomputer. Computing clusters are very common, and many institutes have them. Some big schools have huge dedicated clusters, but many have small department-funded clusters. You may have to search or talk with IT (who may not manage them, but need to know about them,) but it's still possible to get an account. Department-sized clusters aren't large enough to handle college-wide access, but aren't often used at 100% capacity by their owners. There may also be an associated Computer Science class that will give you access and teach you how to use one effectively, though it may not count towards your degree.

The experimental labs are your best bet for finding equipment you can use, since medical facilities are pretty tightly controlled and clinical equipment is protected. This may mean going cross-discipline depending on your institution, but that is often encouraged. Ask around, but remember to be respectful of the equipment and the group's time and resources. Having a plan ahead of time is part of this; if you have a concrete goal (think lab exercises rather than pure research) they will be more willing to share.

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